Cold reading

This article is about the communication technique. For the theatrical training technique, see Cold reading (theatrical). For the Stone Sour song "Cold Reader", see Stone Sour (album).

Cold reading is a set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does.[1] Without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person's body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses.

Basic procedure

Before starting the actual reading, the reader will typically try to elicit cooperation from the subject, saying something such as, "I often see images that are a bit unclear and which may sometimes mean more to you than to me; if you help, we can together uncover new things about you." One of the most crucial elements of a convincing cold reading is a subject eager to make connections or reinterpret vague statements in any way that will help the reader appear to make specific predictions or intuitions. While the reader will do most of the talking, it is the subject who provides the meaning.

After determining that the subject is cooperative, the reader will make a number of probing statements or questions, typically using variations of the methods noted below. The subject will then reveal further information with their replies (whether verbal or non-verbal) and the cold reader can continue from there, pursuing promising lines of inquiry and quickly abandoning or avoiding unproductive ones. In general, while revelations seem to come from the reader, most of the facts and statements come from the subject, which are then refined and restated by the reader so as to reinforce the idea that the reader got something correct.

Subtle cues such as changes in facial expression or body language can indicate whether a particular line of questioning is effective or not. Combining the techniques of cold reading with information obtained covertly (also called "hot reading") can leave a strong impression that the reader knows or has access to a great deal of information about the subject. Because the majority of time during a reading is spent dwelling on the "hits" the reader obtains, while the time spent recognizing "misses" is minimized, the effect gives an impression that the cold reader knows far more about the subject than an ordinary stranger could.

James Underdown from Center for Inquiry and Independent Investigations Group said, "In the context of a studio audience full of people, cold reading is not very impressive." Underdown explains cold-reading from a mathematical viewpoint. A typical studio audience consists of approximately 200 people, divided up into three sections. A conservative estimate assumes each person knows 150 people. When a psychic asks the question "'Who's Margaret?' he is hoping there is a Margaret in the 10,000 people in the database of that section. If there is no answer, they open the question up to the whole audience's database of over 30,000 people! Would it be surprising for there to be a dozen Margarets in such a large sample?"[2]

Specific techniques


"Shotgunning" is a commonly used cold reading technique. This technique is named after a shotgun, as it fires a cluster of small projectiles in the hope that one or more of the shots will strike the target.

The cold reader slowly offers a huge quantity of very general information, often to an entire audience (some of which is very likely to be correct, near correct or at the very least, provocative or evocative to someone present), observes their subjects' reactions (especially their body language), and then narrows the scope, acknowledging particular people or concepts and refining the original statements according to those reactions to promote an emotional response. A majority of people in a room will, at some point for example, have lost an older relative or known at least one person with a common name like "Mike" or "John".

Shotgunning might include a series of vague statements such as:

A vast variety of medical problems have chest pain as a symptom, and heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.
Most people will know a woman who was diagnosed with one of these problems, which are among the leading causes of illness and death.
Nearly all people will have had such a person in their lives, and nearly all of them will have had a disagreement.

The Forer effect (Barnum statements)

The Forer effect relies in part on the eagerness of people to fill in details and make connections between what is said and some aspect of their own lives, often searching their entire life's history to find some connection, or reinterpreting statements in a number of different possible ways so as to make it apply to themselves.

"Barnum statements", named after P. T. Barnum, the American showman, are statements that seem personal, yet apply to many people.[3] And while seemingly specific, such statements are often open-ended or give the reader the maximum amount of "wiggle room" in a reading. They are designed to elicit identifying responses from people. The statements can then be developed into longer and more sophisticated paragraphs and seem to reveal great amounts of detail about a person. A talented and charismatic reader can sometimes even bully a subject into admitting a connection, demanding over and over that they acknowledge a particular statement as having some relevance and maintaining that they are just not thinking hard enough, or are repressing some important memory.

Statements of this type might include:

Regarding the last statement, if the subject is old enough, his or her father is quite likely to have died, and this statement would easily apply to a large number of medical conditions. The list includes: heart disease, pneumonia, diabetes, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, renal failure, most types of cancer, and, for that matter, to any cause of death in which cardiac arrest precedes death, or damage to the brainstem responsible for cardiopulmonary function.

Warm reading

Warm reading is a performance tool used by professional mentalists and psychic scam artists.[4] While hot reading is the use of foreknowledge and cold reading works on reacting to the subject's responses, warm reading refers to the judicious use of Barnum effect statements.

When these psychological tricks are used properly, the statements give the impression that the mentalist, or psychic scam artist, is intuitively perceptive and psychically gifted. In reality, the statements fit nearly all of humanity, regardless of gender, personal opinions, age, epoch, culture or nationality.

Michael Shermer gives the example of jewelry worn by those in mourning. Most people in this situation will be wearing or carrying an item of jewelry with some connection to the person they have lost, but if asked directly in the context of a psychic reading whether they have such an item, the client may be shocked and assume that the reader learned the information directly from the deceased loved one.[5] Robert Todd Carroll notes in The Skeptic's Dictionary that some would consider this to be cold reading.[6]

The rainbow ruse

The rainbow ruse is a crafted statement which simultaneously awards the subject a specific personality trait, as well as the opposite of that trait. With such a phrase, a cold reader can "cover all possibilities" and appear to have made an accurate deduction in the mind of the subject, despite the fact that a rainbow ruse statement is vague and contradictory. This technique is used since personality traits are not quantifiable, and also because nearly everybody has experienced both sides of a particular emotion at some time in their lives.

Statements of this type include:

A cold reader can choose from a variety of personality traits, think of its opposite, and then bind the two together in a phrase, vaguely linked by factors such as mood, time, or potential.

Contrasting claims of performers

The mentalist branch of the stage-magician community approves of "reading" as long as it is presented strictly as an artistic entertainment and one is not pretending to be psychic.[7]

Some performers who use cold reading are honest about their use of the technique. Lynne Kelly, Kari Coleman,[8] Ian Rowland,[9] and Derren Brown[10] have used these techniques at either private fortune-telling sessions or open forum "talking with the dead" sessions in the manner of those who claim to be genuine mediums. Only after receiving acclaim and applause from their audience do they reveal that they needed no psychic power for the performance, only a sound knowledge of psychology and cold reading.

In an episode of his Trick of the Mind series broadcast in March 2006, Derren Brown showed how easily people can be influenced through cold reading techniques by repeating Bertram Forer's famous demonstration of the personal validation fallacy, or Forer effect.

Sitter misremembering

Mentalist Mark Edward relates from personal experience as a "psychic performer" how powerful a hit can be when someone in a large audience "claims" a phrase such as a "clown in a graveyard" statement. Edward describes a mental image of a clown placing flowers on graves and adds, "Does that mean anything to someone... " whereupon a woman stands up and claims that he is speaking directly to her. She remembers it as Edward specifically stating that she knew a man who dressed as a clown and placed flowers on graves in her hometown. Edward reports that it took some convincing to get her to understand that he was not directly talking to her, but had thrown the statement out to the entire audience of 300 people. She made the connection, and because it seemed so personal and the situation so odd she felt that he was talking to her directly.[11]

In a detailed review of four sittings done by medium Tyler Henry, Edward and Susan Gerbic reviewed all the statements on the TV show Hollywood Medium. In their opinion not one statement made by Henry was accurate, yet each sitter felt that the reading was very successful. In after interviews with each sitter all four claimed that Henry had made specific statements, but after reviewing the show it showed that he had not. Each sitter misremembered the statement. One of many examples of this was when Henry during a session with celebrity Ross Matthews stated "Bambi, why am I connecting to Bambi"? Matthews stated that his father who was a hunter would not shoot deer because of the movie Bambi. In the post interview, Matthews stated that "it was weird that Henry knew that my father would not shoot deer because of Bambi", when that is not what was said, Matthews had misremembered what Henry had said.[12]

Subconscious cold reading

Former New Age practitioner Karla McLaren has spoken about developing a system of cold reading without realising, saying in a 2004 interview that "I didn't understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone; I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis." McLaren has said that since she was always very perceptive, she could easily figure out many of the issues that people brought into sessions with them. In order to reduce the appearance of unusual expertise that might have created a power differential, she posed her observations as questions rather than facts. This attempt to be polite, she realized, actually invited the other person, as McLaren has said, to "lean into the reading" and give her more pertinent information.[13]

After some people have performed hundreds of readings, their skills may improve to the point where they may start believing they can read minds. They may ask themselves if their success is because of psychology, intuition or a psychic ability.[14] This point of thought is known by some skeptics of the paranormal as the "transcendental temptation".[15] Magic historian and occult investigator Milbourne Christopher has warned that the transcendental choice may lead one unknowingly into a belief in the occult and a deterioration of reason.[16]

In movies and on television

See also


  1. Dutton, Denis (1988). "The cold reading technique". Experientia. 44 (4): 326–332. doi:10.1007/BF01961271. PMID 3360083. Retrieved June 30, 2009.
  2. Underdown, James. "They See Dead People - Or Do They?: An Investigation of Television Mediums". CSI. Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved July 11, 2015.
  4. Huston, Peter. (2002). More Scams from the Great Beyond!: How to Make Even More Money Off the Creationism, Evolution, Environmentalism, Fringe Politics, Weird Science, the Occult, and Other Strange Beliefs. Paladin Press. ISBN 1-58160-354-1
  5. Shermer, Michael (2001). "Deconstructing The Dead". Skeptic Magazine. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  6. Robert Todd Carroll. "Warm Reading". The Skeptic's Dictionary. Retrieved 2014-02-10.
  7. The Dance by Brad Henderson, Brad Henderson and Henderson Productions, 2007
  8. Kari Coleman (2001). "My Psychic Adventure". Swift. 2 (3&4). Retrieved 2006-12-11.
  9. Rowland, Ian (2008-04-01). The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Persuasive Psychological Manipulation Technique in the World (4 ed.). London: Ian Rowland Limited. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-9558476-0-8.
  11. Edward, Mark. "The Clown in the Graveyard". Skeptical Inquirer. Center for Inquiry. Retrieved 22 April 2016.
  12. Gerbic, Susan; Edward, Mark. "Tip the Canoe of Tyler Too!". Skeptical Inquirer. Center for Inquiry. Retrieved 22 April 2016.
  13. Karla McLaren (May 2004). "Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures". Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved 2012-08-29.
  14. Paramiracles by Ted Lesley, Hermetic Press, 1994
  15. The Transcendental Temptation by Paul Kurtz, Prometheus books, 1986
  16. ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really is by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970
  17. Whitaker, Monique (March 8, 2009). "The devil is in the details". The Times. Retrieved August 3, 2009.
  18. Walker, Chad (February 9, 2010). "TV Review: Leverage 2.13 - "The Future Job"". fandomania. Retrieved August 5, 2010.


  1. Austin Cline What is Cold Reading? Skeptical Perspectives
  2. Hyman, Ray. Guide to Cold Reading
  3. Colin Hunter. Cold Reading: Confessions of a "Psychic"
  4. Denis Dutton The Cold Reading Technique
  5. Dickson, D.H., & Kelly, I.W. "The 'Barnum effect' in personality assessment: A review of the literature," Psychological Reports, 57, 367-382, (1985).
  6. Stagnaro, Angelo. Something from Nothing. Manipulix Books. 2002.
  7. Stagnaro, Angelo. The Other Side. Manipulix Books. 2005.
  8. Shermer, Michael. (2001). "Deconstructing The Dead: Cross Over One Last Time To Expose Medium John Edward," Scientific American, Aug. 1.
  9. Hyman, Ray. "'Cold Reading': How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them," The Skeptical Inquirer Spring/Summer 1977.
  10. Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Prometheus Books, 1989).
  11. Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia (Prometheus, 1997).
  12. Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).
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